One of my favorite assignments to do with undergraduate researchers is a short paper about their dream source. As students begin tinkering with a line of inquiry, I ask them to imagine the best possible source they could find to help support their argument: a classified document hidden in a storage facility somewhere in Utah, the personal diary of their author, a director’s documentary about his own directing and editing choices on a given film, the direct feed from an alien monitoring station whose transcript of the events has suddenly and inexplicably landed on their kitchen counter, or any number of other outrageous artifacts. I ask the students to write a short essay describing this artifact, detailing what they would inevitably find in their treasure-trove, how they might begin to incorporate those findings into something like a central claim or argument, and finally, what sources they will expect to discover over the term that will begin to guide them towards the discoveries they would have found if, in fact, research were a tidy and perfect task.
I was thinking about this assignment on my run this morning - both because I have been obsessing over the envoi as a peculiar form of poetry and because I was trying to drown out the sound of a BBC interview with a torture apologist coming through my earbuds. I was once under some delusion that the envoi might be a perfect source for the re-articulation of friendship at the turn of the fourteenth century. The envoi is, after all, very much like a short letter one might write to a close acquaintance. The form is flexible enough to address serious topics as well as playful ones; their brevity allows for some degree of poetic play; and most importantly, their content often suggests an ease of familiarity between author and audience such that modern readers often approach the envoi as a small piece to a puzzle whose full image has been lost to history. Of course, having beaten my head against a wall (sometimes quite literally but more often against piles of books than walls) for nearly two years thinking about one envoi in particular, Geoffrey Chaucer's "Envoy to Scogan," I have long since abandoned any notion that the envoi could be a perfect source or even all that helpful at re-articulating our contemporary understanding of medieval friendships.
As the apologist continued his defense of abominations, I began to think through the traditional list of testaments to friendship: treatises on the topic, letter collections, elegies, monuments, idealized fictions. My authors have not left friendship in these forms. And perhaps this is good thing - else I might not have a dissertation project at all. I finished my run thinking about Petrarch's letters and how wonderful it would be to write a mock letter from Chaucer to Gower, or from Hoccleve to Chaucer, and to carry out the assignment I have so often asked my students to perform. I wrote this post instead - I am not quite ready to enter the world of late medieval fan fic. But I have seen from my students' works how some trace of this perfect source that never existed remains to be called forth and collated. And I will return to the messy task of research, knowing full well that it does not permit simply ignoring the possibility of the perfect source - whether it exists only in the mind of the researcher or is actually published from the redacted writings of a man who was illegally imprisoned and tortured for more than a decade.